Seven years ago, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris and a group of like-minded colleagues founded the Center for Youth Wellness to shine a spotlight on the lifelong impact that child maltreatment, adversity and toxic stress can have on children.
We know from research that adverse experiences such as parental divorce, abandonment by parents, and witnessing violence and trauma cause enormous mental and physical distress on children and greatly increase their lifetime risk of a wide range of disorders from diabetes to depression, heart disease and stroke.
Now, in child detention camps, the United States government itself is inflicting trauma on thousands of defenseless young children. Kids as young as one are being marched into these camps with little idea of what will happen to them. One eight-year-old told reporters that he thought his father had been taken away to be killed, and that he expected to be killed next.
What is happening today should shock the conscience of the nation, and it is the job of organizations like the Center for Youth Wellness and the American Academy of Pediatrics to sound the alarm. We who serve as advocates for the well-being of children must raise our voices all the louder when the perpetrators of abuse and mistreatment are members of our own government, acting in our name.
This is especially important at a time in which children are languishing in filthy, dangerously overcrowded camps plagued by outbreaks of the flu — and when government attorneys are not ashamed to argue that the U.S. has no legal duty to provide soap, toothpaste or blankets to their tiny detainees.
It is still more important because the Department of Homeland Security has issued a final rule terminating the Flores Settlement Agreement, thereby permitting the indefinite detention of migrant children in unlicensed facilities.
This decision should alarm anyone, no matter the political affiliation, who is concerned about the impact of trauma on children. As CYW founder and pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris said in testimony before a congressional committee last year, “You don’t have to be a doctor to recognize that a child being forcibly separated from their parents’ care faces long-term psychological and emotional harm. But what we now know is this type of trauma, left unaddressed, can more than double an individual’s risk for asthma, autoimmune disease, chronic lung disease, and cancer, and can cut the life expectancy short by decades.”
Dr. Dolly Lucio Sevier, a physician in private practice in McAllen, Texas, visited one child detention camp and examined 39 children in a facility with “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.” All 39 showed signs of trauma, she said. Children were not allowed to wash their hands and mothers were forbidden from cleaning baby bottles. Dr. Sevier compared the conditions in the facilities to those of “torture facilities.”
Our country’s leading organizations for physicians have universally condemned the Flores settlement decision and child detention facilities in general. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also joined 20 other organizations in filing a legal brief that asks a judge to block the ruling allowing indefinite detention, arguing that detention “is inherently harmful to children. ”
Mary Kelly Persyn, the new board chair for the Center for Youth Wellness, has called the detention camp conditions “crimes against humanity.”
Persyn is a child advocate and attorney for the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, California. In a June 27 op-ed written with Warren Binford that was published in the New York Daily News, she writes that “children in United States custody are sick and dying in overcrowded and unsanitary Customs and Border Patrol stations…Teams of experts were sent to check in on these boys and girls and witnessed severely neglected children who described their hunger and pain. ” The children they saw were dirty and sleep-deprived, kept awake by cold and fear, lice infestations and the flu. “Minors treated like this in any home would be removed by Child Protective Services,” the authors wrote.
“This is a child welfare issue embodying a national moral reckoning that will define us as a civilization: Will we hold innocent children in squalid conditions in order to score political points, or will we fulfill our legal and moral obligation and release them to their families?”
Noting that some detention centers had appointed older children to care for the younger ones, Persyn and Binford added, “No civilized society puts babies and toddlers in the care of other children even as disease begins to spread through a facility. It is utterly unconscionable. Babies and children do not belong in jails, period.”
The Center for Youth Wellness will continue to advocate for children — whether American or foreign-born — and call for an end to any policies that would pose a serious threat to their physical and psychological health.
Center for Youth Wellness is not a crisis center. Those experiencing urgent medical or psychiatric concerns should dial 911 or their local emergency agency for assistance. We are unable to respond to messages requesting referrals, treatment or clinical consultations from individuals who are not our patients.